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The main event on the program was the premiere of Nasar Abadey‘s “Diamond in the Rough Suite,” but the opening act was a panel symposium on “Technique vs. the Blues – Jazz on the Auction Block,” moderated by jazz journalist and producer Willard Jenkins. He called on panelists to address two questions: What, in your view, is the health of the music from a playing perspective? And, as jazz musicians develop across the globe—-many of them trained in the U.S.—-they have filtered the music through their own cultural lens; does that remove the music from its roots, and is that a bad thing? The answer to both questions, said flautist, composer, and educator Brother Ah, is not that European jazz is diluting American roots, but that jazz has been overtaken by the sterility of academia. “The ingredient of the aural tradition in the music is decaying,” he said. “Musicians are learning purely in the classroom, and not so much by working with and listening to the masters—-and seeing the rituals backstage that musicians engage in. And with losing the ritualism, jazz is also losing its spirit.”
Poet and scholar A.B. Spellman agreed. “There are more jazz musicians playing well today, than ever before,” he said. “But I also find the music they make to be less itneresting. I suspect that the problem is a class change in the music—-the ghetto genius that once crafted the best jazz is now lost to it.” Spellman trusts that “ghetto genius” more than the jazz of the middle class, he noted.
Bill Brower, a renowned writer, producer, and jazz scholar, added that the social component that once characterized jazz has gone. “We used to dance in the aisles at [New York’s] Apollo Theater,” he said. “At [D.C.]’s Howard Theater, young people could wait outside the stage door for Lester Young or Dizzy Gillespie. They had access that surely, nobody has with artists who perform today at the Kennedy Center.
“The alienation of the music from the social base has had severe consequences both for the music, and the social base.”
The panelists, and Jenkins, seemed to find agreement in all these points, among many others: that while European jazz continues to be vital and interesting, the diminishment of the blues tradition is a great loss; that we should be less concerned with labels like “jazz” that put musicians in a box, and more concerned with realizing their human potential; and that the rise of academic status for jazz has coincided with a loss of its character.” The audience, judging from their reactions and questions, was convinced too. Nonetheless, the conversation did raise some important questions: Did the “ghetto genius” of the past not coincide at times with a black middle and upper-middle class, like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington? And certainly, those musicians were among many who agitated for jazz to receive greater institutional support and academic status in the decades before that happened; was that a mistake? Is there a “Be careful what you wish for” lesson to be taken from the situation?
Happily, a panel discussion like this is the start of a valuable conversation, not the end.